LETTER: Students Deserve Better Than the Hysteria over the Education Budget

Submitted by Cody Kittle, a GHS Alum and Greenwich Dad

George Orwell once said that “if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” This seems to be the approach of the authors of a letter published earlier this week,“Greenwich school budget cuts will have a direct and long lasting negative effect on students. The authors label the education budget as “extreme” and “unprecedented.”

This hysteria and use of the word “cuts” is disingenuous. More money will be spent on education in Greenwich in FY2021 than in FY2020. With teacher’s benefits excluded, spending is still flat to the 2019/2020 school year. Curiously, I was unable to find any letter from the authors last year decrying the budget then as “extreme.” Why what worked last year will fail our students now remains unanswered.

The district plans to spend $200.4 million vs. $197.9 million last year. This 1.3% increase is labeled as putting “our values at stake.” Meanwhile, the desired 2.9% increase brings us “toward perfecting the world we want to live in.” This raises the question, is the quality of education so tightly bound with spending that a difference of a percent could risk our children’s futures?

Furthermore, do these benefits of global perfection cease at only a 2.9% increase? It seems oddly specific. Why not call for doubling the education budget? And if the retort is that which is obvious, that there are other considerations in budgeting, then couldn’t the authors give us at least some sense of why their desired increase of 2.9% is better than the planned 1.3%?

Greenwich’s public school enrollment in 2004 had a nearly identical student count as today, but the Board of Education’s spending is more than $60 million higher, far outpacing inflation. Meanwhile the proliferation and development of technology has significantly lowered the cost of attaining knowledge. Is it unreasonable to ask why our cost of education has not declined? Or perhaps, to request evidence that our schools are $60+ million better today? As a student in the Greenwich school system back then, I cannot think of where my classmates were short-changed.

The weak connection between spending and quality of education is intuitive. Ask yourself, did the great lessons, teachers, and social experiences of your schooling vary based on how much was being spent on them? In the case of teachers, we know the answer is no, as teacher pay is not even allowed to be based on merit in the public school system. If the quality of education were a matter of expenditure, families would be fleeing the suburbs for New York City’s public schools where per pupil spending is more than $25,000 a year, about 20% higher than in Greenwich. Furthermore, have you ever heard someone say, “you can’t possibly move to Darien, the school budget is 7% less per student!” – the actual difference as of 2017.

Even if the budget were being cut, which it is not, it would seem plausible that status quo spending is sub-optimally allocated. Here is one place to look: Greenwich’s very low student teacher ratio of 11-1. The U.S. in 1970 was 22-1 and today is 14-1. Stanford educational economist Eric Hanushek, described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath as having done the “definitive analysis of the many hundreds of class-size studies,” has written, “while policies to reduce class size may enjoy popular political appeal, such policies are very expensive and, according to the evidence, quite ineffective.”

One of the highest quality datasets on the subject actually comes from Connecticut elementary schools, which Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby used to demonstrate no student benefit from reduced class sizes. The logic is straightforward, a critical part of a student’s education is learning from other students, and smaller classes deprive children of that opportunity. This is likely an area of waste in our spending, and yet this mundane budget does not go near it, leaving teacher employment untouched.   

We are lucky to live in a town where parents care so much about how to make our schools better. However, so far, no evidence has been presented to suggest that the children of Greenwich schools are losing out because of lack of funding, and thoughtful examination of the academic literature would suggest that we are likely spending too much money and spending it in the wrong places. Ironically, the fact that our community creates such drama over such an innocuous budget action is precisely why our schools are great, because parents that really care will always matter more than spending levels.

Reasonable people may disagree about the optimal amount to spend on education, but any attempt to equate a 1.3% increase in educational spending as extremism or anti-education is pure demagoguery. Our students deserve a better example from their parents on what critical thinking and civil discourse entail.

  • Cody Kittle, GHS Alum and Greenwich Dad